I recently responded to the open call for commentary on Romain Brette’s article “Is coding a relevant metaphor for the brain?”, to be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Philosopher Corey Maley and I submitted the following proposal. However, we were not invited to submit our commentary. Here is the brief synopsis of what we had planned to comment on:
Brette claims that the neural coding metaphor “cannot constitute a valid basis for theories of brain function because it is disconnected from the causal structure of the brain and incompatible with the representational requirements of cognition” (p. 6). This criticism reflects long-standing debates about how to conceptualize and explain brain and behaviour. In this commentary, we will expand on the philosophical commitments of the neural coding paradigm and its alternatives with the goal of bringing improved conceptual clarity to the discussion. In particular, we will describe how theories of mind and theories of cognition are related to theories of explanation in neuroscience. How a scientist conceptualizes a phenomenon will partly determine what constitutes a satisfactory explanation of that phenomenon. The neural coding paradigm centers the brain as an information processing system. This makes it well-suited to functionalist theories of explanation, which explain complex phenomena by analyzing the function of sub-phenomena. Brette, on the other hand, is concerned with identifying causal mechanisms. According to causal mechanistic theories of explanation in neuroscience, neural phenomena are explained by identifying the physical mechanisms whose components and their causal relationships produce the phenomenon to be explained. Thus, Brette’s criticism can be reframed as a criticism of functionalist theories of explanation, on which much has been written. Brette’s closing section, “What else, if not coding?”, reflects the contemporary imprecision in neuroscience about what are the phenomena to be explained (what is mind? what is cognition? what is the brain? what is information?) and how such phenomena ought to be explained. Rather than prescribing a particular theory of explanation, we suggest that neuroscience will enjoy improved clarity of thought by understanding how different conceptual frameworks lend themselves to different theories of explanation. Additionally, it is possible that none of the existing theories of explanation reflect the types of explanations that many areas of neuroscience will ultimately seek to produce. In order to make progress, the field may need to first acknowledge this theoretical gap.